Working outdoors promotes engagement and learning

Posted on under Today's research

More and more studies recently have shown how much we need to spend time in nature. These studies (almost all in previous TRs) have shown that we need time in natural environments for the sake of our physical and mental health. Now we find that being in a natural setting encourages concentration, promotes engagement and increases retention. What’s not to like?

What the researchers say: Following an outdoor lesson in nature, students were more engaged with their schoolwork, and their teachers could teach uninterrupted for almost twice as long. The study recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology has found that 9-10-year-old children are significantly more attentive and engaged with their schoolwork following an outdoor lesson in nature. Strikingly, this “nature effect” allowed teachers to teach uninterrupted for almost twice as long during a subsequent indoor lesson. The results suggest that outdoor lessons may be an inexpensive and convenient way to improve student engagement—a major factor in academic achievement.

Scientists have known for a while that natural outdoor environments can have a variety of beneficial effects on people. People exposed to parks, trees or wildlife can experience benefits such as physical activity, stress reduction, rejuvenated attention and increased motivation. In children and adults, studies have shown that even a view of greenery through a classroom or office window could have positive effects on attention.

“We wanted to see if we could put the nature effect to work in a school setting,” said the lead author. “If you took a bunch of squirmy third-graders outdoors for lessons, would they show a benefit of having a lesson in nature, or would they just be bouncing off the walls afterward?”

The researchers studied a class of third graders (9-10 years old) in a school in the Midwestern United States. Over a 10-week period, an experienced teacher held one lesson a week outdoors and a similar lesson in her regular classroom and another, more skeptical teacher did the same. Their outdoor “classroom” was a grassy spot just outside the school, in view of a wooded area.

After each outdoor or indoor lesson, the researchers measured how engaged the students were. They counted the number of times the teacher needed to redirect the attention of distracted students back to their schoolwork, using phrases such as “sit down” and “you need to be working”. The research team also asked an outside observer to look at photos taken of the class during the observation period and score the level of class engagement, without knowing whether the photos were taken after an indoor or outdoor lesson. The teachers also scored class engagement.

The team’s results show that children were more engaged after the outdoor lessons in nature. Far from being overexcited and inattentive immediately after an outdoor lesson, students were significantly more attentive and engaged with their schoolwork. The number of times the teacher had to redirect a student’s attention to their work was roughly halved immediately after an outdoor lesson.

“Our teachers were able to teach uninterrupted for almost twice as long at a time after the outdoor lesson,” said the researchers, “and we saw the nature effect with our skeptical teacher as well.”

So what? This study has a lot of lessons for those who design workspaces. Humans need to be able to see the natural environment I order to be resilient—the connection between any interaction with nature and stress reduction is by now beyond debate—for memory consolidation and for immune response improvement. Yet most offices are too high up to have any real appreciation of nature—even when staff can actually look out of a window. Having a view of trees, or water, or mountains or living flowers (i.e. not cut) is absolutely essential for our mental and physical health—and, as this study shows, for learning, concentration and attention.

I believe that having a view of nature is also part of what is called “defensible workspace.” In 1972 the architect and town planner Oscar Newman wrote his famous book “Defensible Space” in which he advocated low-rise high-density urban environments with plenty of open spaces. He saw this, rightly as it turned out, as a way of making people feel safer in their homes and in reducing crime. Later studies have shown that the concept of having viewable natural surroundings—parks, tree-lined streets etc.—is important for mental and physical health (we wrote a lot about this in our book “Creating Optimism”).

What now? Work environments must be designed with nature in mind. Some obvious things to include are:

·         Open views of a natural feature or features

·         No workspace without windows with a sense of horizon view

·         Potted plants

·         Pictures depicting natural scenes

Just these and other fairly simple things can reduce stress and make work more productive and, well, more human.

By Dr Bob Murray